Letters to the Editor: September 2011 issue

As a citizen and veteran of the United States, I was shocked and surprised at the way in which I was treated when I attempted to speak before the Texas State University System Board of Regents on Friday, August 19.  (The Regents are appointed by the Governor of Texas and employ a staff to assist in the management of eight state funded institutions of higher learning, one of which is Sul Ross State University.)
I requested by e-mail two weeks prior to the next scheduled board meeting that was to be held at Sul Ross to speak during their public comments.
On the 18th of August I visited with staff members to get an idea of when I would have an opportunity to speak. I was told to get an agenda for a timeline which I should follow. Since they did not provide me with an agenda, I went to the web page of the office of the Texas Secretary of State to retrieve a copy of the agenda to be used by the TSUS board. Although this document is straightforward, it does not provide a timeline and all public comments are simply listed at the end of the agenda.
The TSUS Regents were scheduled to meet for two days in Alpine  (on the18th & 19th); the last day is when time is allotted for any student, faculty, staff, alumni, parents or citizens of the community to address the Regents.
One of the many topics on their agenda was to raise the fees and tuitions of the universities and to consider raises of president’s salaries. If there is anything I’ve learned, it is that fees, tuition and salaries never seem to go back down, just continue to creep up.
On Friday, the day that I believed I would be able to speak before the regents, they decided to leave without any notification, thereby not allowing public comments or the presentation of the collection of letters and information from several other Alpine community members concerning Sul Ross SU. The Regents did not have the common courtesy to listen or allow the community to express its views on the management of Sul Ross and its affect on our community.
The board’s unscheduled departure, without allowing [members of] the community to speak or present a collection of letters from interested parties shows a lack of disrespect to us all.
Public comment and review is the foundation of public entities, but requires that citizens are given an opportunity to be heard. The TSUS Regent’s board appears to have taken that right away from the citizens of Texas.

Clarence Russeau
Alpine

The West Texas Food Bank, serving 22 counties in West Texas with physical offices in Alpine, El Paso and Odessa, has just released the rate of child food insecurity in our area. This study from Feeding America shows the percentage of children without access to regular, healthy meals that provide enough nourishment to lead productive lives all the way down to the county level. The results are, we think, quite shocking.
* West Texas, as a whole, is 12 points above the national average for hungry children and 21 of the 22 counties we serve also beat the national average individually.
* El Paso has over 86,000 children housed within it without regular, healthy meals.
* Andrews, Ector, Midland and Ward, even though situated in a booming oil and gas economy, skyrocket over the national average for child food insecurity.
* Presidio County ranks the #5 worst county for child hunger in the entire state of Texas!

Paige Phelps
Director of Marketing and Community Relations, West Texas Food Bank
Alpine, Odessa, El Paso

Editor’s Note: See page 10 for the study and the official release to which Ms. Phelps refers.

“Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit.”  — Edward R. Murrow
There is no public statement by a majority of citizens of Alpine, Marfa, or Fort Davis supporting dissolution of South West Texas Municipal Gas Corporation (SWTMG). In fact, splitting the gas company is being perpetrated by four elected officials eager to prop up their municipal budgets with the bounty from their actions.
Dissolving the gas company draws a lot of attention, but much less is said about what happens after October 1st.  How will the parts of SWTMG fare as separate entities? Gas distribution is a heavily regulated and regimented industry. Strict state compliance is required for every facet of distribution from the composition of pipe to GPS mapping of every service performed. This costs money, especially at start-up, and can turn into an insurmountable burden for small gas distributors.
For example, a 2010 state mandate requires that all steel pipe in gas systems be replaced with composite “poly-pipe” (close to 50 miles of pipe replacement for SWTMG). Is “Alpine Gas” budgeting for this? Can Marfa even contemplate it with as little revenue as they’ll produce? Even with Fort Davis included? Former GM Davis was on top of this and was working a Texas Railroad Commission-approved plan to complete this $1.2 million project, but it was based upon previous SWTMG service history and revenue, and would likely not apply to Marfa or Alpine separately.
Mismanagement by the board of directors since last September has depleted the $1 million cash reserve SWTMG enjoyed, and led to an operating deficit months ago. With strict regulatory hurdles and very little operating capital, selling (or borrowing on, then selling) the separate parts of SWTMG is just a matter of time. Instead of supporting our regional businesses by buying supplies and paying salaries locally, our monthly gas bills will go to a company in New Mexico, or to a Midland conglomerate (with a customer service call center in Oklahoma).
Normally, elected officials work hard to bring revenue and jobs into their communities to support their local economies. Our gas board members seem to prize the notion of permanently draining money and security from our regional economy.
It takes an exceptional mindset to push such a bad idea so hard, but this board seems to excel at excepting itself. It has made apparent exceptions for itself virtually at will from corporate by-laws, city council instructions, financial sense, legal advice, open government provisions, citizen input, transparency of actions, ethics, and responsibility to customers, constituents, and the foundational trust that must define good government.
The naked truth is that dissolving SWTMG will be extremely risky for our regional economy. Do four people have the right to jeopardize the rest of us by taking that risk?
In truth, no.

Peter A. Smyke
Alpine

First it was former Alpine Councilman Fitzgerald; then present member, Mike Davidson and now his associate and one of Alpine’s representatives on the SWTMGC Board, Diana Asgeirsson.  It must have been her turn at bat to obfuscate and misinform the public.
In a letter of August 11 circulating online, she’s critical of Pete Smyke’s informed letters to the media about the gas company and feeling that her integrity is being questioned.  She goes on to use the word “puppet” to describe fellow Alpine council members Bermudez and Julian Gonzalez.  Excuse me?
Marfa’s Mayor Dan Dunlap is the guru of the SWTMGC Board and prime-mover behind all that’s happened for more than a year and a half; turning a once thriving not-for-profit municipal utility into a case study in “how not to do it”.  Ms. Asgeirsson is in good standing as a stalwart member of the “Gang of Four” and as such, a staunch defender of its actions.
Their behavior begs the old Watergate questions: “What does Marfa’s Mayor Dan Dunlap, Ms. Asgeirsson and the others of the Gang know and when did they first know it” – that is so sacrosanct the rest of us are too unworldly to understand?  Why the absence of objective replies; answers which could be fact-checked and verified?
For example: “Why the contract to Dunlap’s computer savvy friend who stiffed the company for $28,000 and no measurable steps to recoup the funds other than a sham vote to mollify the public?”  “Why fire Melvin Davis; a well-qualified GM under the Texas Railroad Commission requirements and replace him with someone without industry and/or state certification placing the public and infrastructure at risk?”
Among Ms. Asgeirsson’s official sins is failing to address the matter of excessive gas rates.  And now; only under public pressure; including Mr. Smyke’s more recent letter providing direct proof of the rates, is the SWTMGC meeting of August 15th going to address lowering the rates.  Another is why has she continued to press for dissolution under terms providing a distinct advantage to Marfa to the detriment of her primary employer the City of Alpine?
The Board’s track record of deceit, misinformation, lack of transparency, ignoring the advice of their former attorney, Mr. Fowler, about NOT firing Melvin Davis is hardly an endorsement for a job in government or private sector.  If Ms. Asgeirsson and the Gang had forth-rightly answered any of these questions, then there wouldn’t be a reason for her to claim “there has been nothing but criticism and accusations on actions by the city council and gas board”.
To the customers of the gas company and citizens of the Alpine, Marfa and Fort Davis:  “Do you know you’ve been over-charged for natural gas and put at risk by virtue of (mis)management decisions of the present SWTMGC Board?”  If allegations raised by Mr. Smyke and others are so, I ask you: “Are these questions beyond the purview of what YOU expect your public servants and officials answer?”
Given all of that and more, where is the evidence upon which we’re supposed to trust Diana Asgeirsson’s judgment?  What scintilla of evidence does the public have to accept her word?  If transparency was lead; Superman would need a seeing-eye dog to make his way through the machinations and shenanigans of the SWTMGC – x-ray vision notwithstanding!  Well then, how does she – among the ‘Gang of Four’ – think the rest of us feel?
Me?  As a retired career public prosecutor, I’d have impaneled a Grand Jury, subpoenaed witnesses and started taking testimony under oath a long time ago!  Admittedly, things move a bit slower out here; although the ‘inducement’ towards honesty works much more efficiently while in the witness chair and/or a potential target of a thorough investigation.
In the prosecuting business, we employ a technique called “FIBO”.  It works like this: “First Into the Grand Jury with the most reliable information gets the Best deal coming Out.”  So Ms. Asgeirsson, this is your turn to come clean by doing more than just sniping at those asking hard questions about the SWTMGC before a prosecutor develops a spine – because its been known to happen.  You may begin with the questions enumerated, above.  You’ll feel so much better to get it all off your chest.
Meanwhile, keep up the pressure by your letters and calls to your elected representatives and yes, prosecutors’ offices.  You are paying them to accept them and respond accordingly!

Rev. Barry A. Zavah
Alpine

[The proceedings of the board of directors of SouthWest Texas Municipal Gas Corporation] still stink (as I have noted several times), more and more as time goes by.
Is there no one of the “gang of four” that can attempt to put together a publishable explanation for what they are trying to do? Can no one even attempt a misspelling of “transparency”?  Can’t the cabal do it, collectively?
Some may disagree, some agree with what they are doing. But they offer no public explanations, at least none that I have seen. Perhaps I simply haven’t been watching closely enough?  If that is the case I will hurriedly apologize for casting aspersions.
If they haven’t, I would say that they are way out of sync with what is reasonably expected of elected officeholders. The lack of any coherent justification for the course(s) of action they have chosen makes it very difficult for a citizen of any of the cities involved or a gas subscriber like me, to form an opinion on the wisdom–or lack thereof–of what they are attempting to ram through.  I cannot, as a more or less rational person, side up with or oppose what they are up to without knowing why they think what they are doing is the best course of action — for who?  Could they be right?  How the heck could any of us know, given the absence of explanation from the majority?
Just as a kicker, I become very suspicious when members of such a body fail, as they have, to follow the legal advice of the attorney they were paying to provide advice. There could, I suppose, be some good reason for that.  But I’ve not seen it expressed.
I grew up Scandinavian, in South Dakota, where the church women (that was the old, sexist, days) every Christmas season used to provide good eats in the season.  Lefse (sort of like a Norsk tortilla) is great, but lutefisk (look it up: fish soaked in lye) stinks up the church basement for weeks.  I think what we are getting is the latter, unlike any cuisine with a Mexican origin I’ve ever heard of. What is going on with our SWTMG dominant gang stinks to high Heaven, not only in substance but in process.
If they cannot/will not be any more forthcoming than they have been over the many months this nonsense has been going on, they should seriously consider resigning their offices.
And if I’m too harsh on incumbents, please just check it up to getting old and cranky. But it does look to me like they have made a terrible and unnecessary mess of  things.

Dale Christophersen
Alpine

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